Art Through The Camera Lens


Captivating. Ageing. Brilliant. Rotten. Just some of the terms used to describe Paul Emsley’s portrait of the Duchess of Cambridge which was recently unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery in London. A painting of its time that it may be, but the techniques used to create the work date back centuries. Emsley, who uses Winsor and Newton Artists’ Oil Colour, only had two sittings with the Duchess of Cambridge. For the rest of the time he had to refer to photographs. And this technique is something our resident artist Mathew Gibson has been investigating.

Accuracy Across The Ages

In his book, ‘Secret Knowledge, rediscovering the lost techniques of the Old Masters’, David Hockney argues that paintings by Jan Eyck and other northern European artists in the early 15th century were so accurate they would have been impossible to make exclusively from observation. He identified the use of concave mirrors, like a shaving mirror, to project an image onto a painting surface which could then be traced. This reversed the image which Hockney argues is why so many drinkers found in Flemish tavern scenes are left handed. 

Richard Whincop, There's no place like home

Leap forward a hundred years and Italy welcomes the camera obscura. This allowed artists to use the light coming through a pin hole in a darkened room or chamber to be projected onto a canvas. Combined with a lens and mirror the image could be focused and positioned up-right ready for tracing. Hockney suggests that Caravaggio used a camera obscura to make his life-like paintings. No under drawing has ever been found in a Caravaggio and occasional distortions in scale could be caused by re-focussing of the lens. Hockney also points to Vermeer’s paintings as being just the right size to fit a projection made in a camera obscura.

The camera lucida followed - a device that didn’t need a dark room. It was light, portable and allowed the artist to see the subject and the drawing surface at the same time. Its faint projections could also be traced. Joshua Reynolds, the founder of the Royal Academy in London, had a camera obscura and a camera lucida, disguised as a book. Hockney argues that many of these methods are little known because artists were keen to protect the secrets of their trade.

In the twentieth century, Andy Warhol, David Salles and Roy Lichtenstein to name but a few used projected images in creating their works. And today’s artists continue to use photography in all its forms.

Richard Whinchop, The Lavant Baptism

Computers, Canvases and Creativity

Contemporary artist Richard Whincop uses photographic technology to create his paintings:

“I adapt my photographic sources very freely, often using elements from several different photos. I combine them into a composition on Photoshop. Once I am happy with the mock-up, I begin painting.

I work in Winsor & Newton Artisan Water Mixable Oil Colour because it gives me the handling qualities of oil but without the use of volatile solvents. Blocking-in with washes can create different effects according to whether I use water or the Artisan thinner, and using a combination of the oils and fast-drying medium I can control drying times, create glazes etc. With a studio at home it means I can wash brushes in water and I don't fill the house with the smell of turpentine. As the work progresses I refer less to the original mock-up. The painting has to transcend the source photographs, integrating all the elements and unifying them into a coherent image.”

Thea Penna, Lila Pearl IV

At Home With Her Camera

Thea Penna used photographs as the starting point for her paintings:
“I divide the photograph into a grid and do the same with the canvas. I can then translate the imagery from each square of the photograph directly into each square of the canvas. My paintings are of scenes around my home, with my family as the main subjects. It’s rare that I use the information from one photograph alone. I usually work from a selection of shots and from life.

I use Winsor & Newton Artists’ Acrylic on canvas, I couldn’t use anything else as this is the medium I feel so comfortable painting with and just love the results. I work in layers and build up my paintings quickly so it is important for the paint to dry quickly. The ‘no colour shift’ you get from Winsor & Newton Artists’ Acrylic suits my work perfectly, as you know exactly what you see is the finished result. I like to work in a small area at home. This is another reason I use acrylics - they are clean to work with and have low odour.”  

Photography On A Grand Scale

A fan of Winsor & Newton Professional Water Colour, Nicholas Phillips creates sets and characters much as Caravaggio and Vermeer would have done. He then photographs them, using the images as the basis for his paintings:
“The selected photo is traced and transferred onto paper ready for the watercolour. Typically the largest part of the 'creative' process goes into thinking out the scene selecting props, the lighting, costumes, assembling the 'set'. I’ll take three or four hundred shots hoping the shutter will catch that one moment which will be transferred into paint.

Particularly in reproduction, the paintings 'look like photographs.' I hope when seeing the real work people can tell they are paintings, but not because brush marks are evident – I want the process of the paint's arrival on the surface to be a bit of a mystery, certainly not an act of artistic bravura.”
Photography Now Another Tool For Artists

From the introduction of oil paint until the invention of photography, painting was the main way of producing a ‘life-like’ image. With chemical photography now almost redundant and advances in technology appearing limitless, it speaks volumes for the adaptability of artists that painting remains such an exciting medium.

Thea Penna, Self-portrait 



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